If you decide that you would like to write up the history of
your hamlet/village/town, where do you begin?
We suggest that you walk the area constantly until you know it from all angles, using a modern large-scale map: old maps may then be used, so that changes in the landscape may be noted. In rural areas, field walking is essential: how else will you notice signs of ridge and furrow, scatters of pottery in ploughed fields suggesting former habitation, or hedges containing so many species that they may be very ancient?
If human beings have left clues about themselves in the landscape and in their architecture, they have also done so in other things; in old photographs, in art and not least in their technology. In the last category, the local researcher must pay attention to railways, water and wind mills, water supply;(indeed, any feature which comes broadly under the heading of 'Industrial Archaeology').
Perhaps man's greatest achievement has been the invention of writing. When the researcher knows his area, what is in it and what problems it poses, it is then necessary to turn to written records. Some of these will be on hand locally: others will be hidden away in collections in records offices. The next two sections will suggest some of.the sources available to those probing the history of a specific area; they are by no means comprehensive.
Many people have old photographs of the area; they also tend to keep programmes of concerts and celebrations. Perhaps not so much now as heretofore, people pasted press cuttings into books. Some people have in their drawers or lofts documents relating to specific societies, sports clubs or firms:- occasionally, they have preserved the official minute book or day book.
Some folk like to write; they express their thoughts in diaries and letters: old examples are usually historically informative.
Besides personal writings and collections, towns and villages contain numerous legal documents, sometimes kept privately, often retained by solicitors and estate agents. These are often deeds of conveyance, which are rarely disappointing in giving information on occupations, relationships and general social conditions.
Local discoveries need discovering - only possible when residents can be persuaded that they possess documents which will have interest in years to come.
When the researcher has exhausted enquiries among his/her friends and acquaintances there remains the largest deposit of all - THE RECORD OFFICE. Two of them are nearby - Warwick County R.O. (a mandatory service) and Stratford Birthplace Trust R.O. (a private facility).
Here are a few of the old deposits available to enquirers:-
1. Old maps of the area, ranging from the 17th century to modern Ordnance Survey maps.
2. Private estate maps of local landlords, an invaluable pointer to original open field systems and later tenant farms.
3. Local landlords also left many estate papers, including rentals and alterations to property.
4. Government taxes, (who paid them and how much) are often to be found in R.O.s such as the 17th century Hearth Tax Returns and the 18th and 19th century Land Tax Returns. Local payments, too, are often found, including Victuallers' and Gamekeepers' Recognizances.
5. A great deal of information comes from the 19th century census returns: Warwick R.O. has these on microfilm from 1841-1891 for every parish in the county.
6. There are commercial, printed sources whose information often comes from official figures; the 19th century Trade Directories (some continuing to 1940) are a mine of information to the local researcher.
For much of Warwickshire and the whole of Worcestershire, the local historian has to have recourse to Worcester R.O. when he/she includes the parish church in a local history. Much of this part of the Midlands was originally in the Diocese of Worcester and its records are largely in Worcester R.O. These include the regular churchwardens' reports to the diocese and the very large number of wills and inventories from many centuries up to 1850.
Each village and town has left records peculiar to itself. As a case in point, Alcester has a long series of Apprentices' Indentures; hundreds of them over a 300 year period at Warwick R.O. The researcher won't know, in fact, until he/she has consulted the files and indices in each R.O. to discover what is there.
It is apparent that all the above is very time-consuming and that it must be a labour of love. To do a local history one has to be thorough and honest; in other words, to deal only with the facts and never with preconceptions, especially with those invented by guide books and earlier authors.
Autumn 1995 Index